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Stephen Scobie: Autobiographical Fee, Margery 1987-12-31

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STEPHEN SCOBIEBiographicalMargery FeeΑ IN CANADA as a poet since 1966, Stephen Scobiehas published ten books of poetry, including McAlmon's Chinese Opera, whichwon the Governor General's Award for Poetry in 1980. The "Chinese Opera" isthe "long/high wordless toneless wail" that got the American writer RobertMcAlmon thrown out of many famous Paris bars in the 1920's and 1930's. Scobieturns it into a rich metaphor, not only for McAlmon's failures, but also for arttaken to the edge of meaning, and beyond. McAlmon's milieu — the decadent,complex, neurotic, and creative Paris of the American literary exile — consistentlyfascinates. But it is his voice — cynical, cold, and angry — that instantly compelsattention. This voice speaks with the authority and immediacy of a revenant, itspain "screaming down / the airwaves of the long dead years." That Scobie'svoice is completely unlike this — except perhaps in its conviction — adds to theimpressiveness of the writing.Scobie was born in Carnoustie, Scotland, on the last day of 1943· He remainedin Scotland, honing his intellect, until he graduated tied for first in the Facultyof Arts of the University of St. Andrews. He began graduate studies at theUniversity of British Columbia in 1965, receiving his Ph.D. in 1969. He marriedMaureen McHale in 1967. Between 1969 and 1981 he taught English at theUniversity of Alberta; he came to the University of Victoria as a full professorin 1981. He and Douglas Barbour frequently collaborate: they were co-chairmenof the League of Canadian Poets between 1971 and 1973; they form the experi-mental sound poetry performance group Re:Sounding; they co-edited The MapleLaugh Forever, an anthology of Canadian comic poetry; and co-authored ThePirates of Pen's Chance. Scobie has been on the editorial board of several journals,including The Malahat Review, and is a founder and editor of Longspoon Press.In 1986, he was awarded the Association for Canadian and Quebec Literature'sGabrielle Roy Prize for his contributions to Canadian literary criticism. Bestknown in the academic community for his critical work in Canadian literature,especially for Leonard Cohen (1978) and bpNichol: What History Teaches( 1984), he is also known in Victoria and Edmonton as a trustworthy and, whennecessary, vitriolic movie reviewer.81SCOBIEMARGERY FEE : Why McAlmon?STEPHEN SCOBIE : This goes back several years to an interest in Gertrude Stein,and radiating out from that, an interest in that whole period of American writersin Paris. And then to an intense love of the city of Paris itself. All of this coalescedin the spring of 1977 when I was giving a graduate course on that period, whichused as its major focus volumes of autobiography. Everybody who passed throughParis in the 1920's wrote an autobiography, and they all appear as characters ineach other's books, thus producing this marvellous, multi-dimensioned creationlike a huge Alexandria Quartet in about forty different volumes. Among the booksI was using were, of course, Stein's autobiography and Glassco's Memoirs ofMontparnasse. I guess it was in Glassco that I had first come across the name ofRobert McAlmon, several years before. One of the other books was BeingGeniuses Together, a joint autobiography of Kay Boyle and McAlmon. It waswhile I was teaching that course that I began writing the poems and they beganin classic form. Late one night, I was lying in bed, not getting to sleep, andMaureen eventually said "You're trying to write a poem, aren't you? Get out ofbed and write the poem, otherwise you're going to keep me awake all night." SoI stumbled into the next room without fully waking up and sat down in front of apiece of paper and started writing, and I was about half way through the firstpoem when I fully became awake and realized that this was Robert McAlmonspeaking.F : Which poem was it?s : It was the first рогт. It actually started "What I never wanted / was pity,"and I really didn't know until I got to the last couple of lines — "Nine hours aday / at a dollar an hour /in 1921" that it was McAlmon.F : Whose voice had taken over.s : In fact that night I wrote the first three poems more or less as they appear inthe book. There followed a period of about three months of intense activity, theclosest I've ever come to being possessed. I was writing sometimes two or threepoems a day, basically in chronological order, though not entirely. I was, partlyfor the course, partly for this book, reading everything on or by McAlmon thatI could lay my hands on in Edmonton. I did not try to interview Kay Boyle oranyone like that, partly because I was a little scared of getting too bound up inthe historicity of it. I wanted a lot of information, but on the other hand I wantedto be free to invent. So the second phase, which was quite long, almost a year,was a phase of going through the manuscript very slowly, very carefully, doingrevision, which often came back to the original version. During that time I didtalk briefly to John Glassco. I got a few things from him, though not all thatmany. He told me, for instance, that McAlmon had written a novel, of which he82SGOBIE(Glassco), was the hero, called The Susceptible Boy. I believe that the MS stillexists, among McAlmon's papers, though I haven't seen it; I did use the titlephrase, however. A couple of the things he told me I very deliberately did notuse : there were things I already had in the book which he said weren't true, butwhich I decided to keep anyway. And a couple of my favourite stories, like theone that is ultimately used as the preface to the whole book, the filthy handreaching in the window, and McAlmon putting his glass of whisky into it, Glasscoflat denies. He said, "That never happened, and if you know the physical layoutof that particular bar you know that it's impossible for it to happen." Still, themajority of the historical details are accurate.F : You wanted to have a sort of framework to build on.s : I wanted to have control. And I felt that there is a kind of authoritativeness infact. One of the things that always interests me about any author is the sheernerve of coming to you and saying "Listen to me, spend some of your valuablelimited time upon this earth reading my book." I think it is an enormous demand,and that an author has to have some kind of authority — I'm playing with thedifferent senses of author, authority there — and fact is one of them, to say:"I'm telling you a truth." And yet I can't be satisfied with someone who simplytells me fact. I want to see something done with it. I'm perfectly prepared in prosefiction to tell and to be told the most outrageous stories, but somehow in my ownpoetry, I'm very reluctant to invent, which, in my more personal lyric poetry, isa kind of limitation. There are certain things that I'm not prepared to do in orderto write poems. I'm not prepared to go out and have five adulterous affairs andtake drugs and spend a year in the mental asylum. I'm just not prepared to doany of these things in order to write poems and yet at the same time I am unableto write poems imagining that I'm doing them. I could, I suppose, as a sheerexercise, sit down and write a poem in which I imagine that I am carrying onan adulterous affair and write poems about the tortured emotions that evolve outof that, et cetera, et cetera, but it would be a false exercise.F : Well, maybe you need a character like McAlmon.s : Yes, certainly part of the attraction of McAlmon was that I could write poemsabout taking cocaine and being a homosexual in Berlin in the nineteen-twenties .. .F : And you didn't have to do it. Do you think you'll do that kind of book again?Or do you think that it descends on you, and can't be controlled.s : I'm vaguely on the lookout for it, but I can't at the moment imagine what itwould be, because it would have to be a subject which had as much appeal, asmuch richness of detail as McAlmon's life had, and yet at the same time it wouldhave to be different enough so that it didn't look as if I was doing the same thingover again.SCOBIEF : Scobie warming up McAlmon.s : I think Ondaatje has been incredibly lucky to go on from Billy the Kid toBuddy Bolden. And he's got his whole family. But I can't at the moment seeanother figure that is equivalent to McAlmon, which raises all kinds of problemsfor me. What am I going to write about?F : You'll struggle along. Has Kay Boyle seen the book?s : Yes, and she hates it.F: Why?s: Well, various reasons. Mainly, she was upset by two things: by the book'sdepartures from factual accuracy, and (which is connected) by my evidentadmiration for John Glassco. I don't think there was ever much love lost betweenBoyle and Glassco. Years ago, I came across in Toronto a presentation copy ofMemoirs of Montparnasse, inscribed to Kay Boyle, with a very interesting noteand poem by Glassco included in it — I quote it in full, and use it as a majorsource, in my article on Glassco.1 But the point is that it was knocking aroundsecond-hand stores in Toronto less than two years after its first publication, soBoyle must have got rid of it fairly fast.F : That's interesting. But she's not in that book. He never mentions her.s : I think he does mention her somewhere, but that's just a blind. In this notehe wrote to her, he goes to great pains to deny that she was the model for DianaTree.F : Bad idea.s : And obviously she didn't believe him. I thought for awhile that Diana Treewas really Mary Butts, but the most recent research seems to confirm that she isKay Boyle.F : Did you buy this book?s : No, I didn't at the time, and I've kicked myself ever since. It's now in theNorth York Public Library, and I acknowledge them whenever I quote it. So thatwas the one problem with Boyle. She also says that recent history should only bewritten by those who lived through that history — which strikes me as nonsenseanyway, apart from the fact that I wasn't writing history. But I do think it'sunderstandable that people who did live through historical events should be farmore upset than other people would be by distortions or transformations of theseevents. Kay Boyle has always had a sort of proprietary attitude towards McAlmon ;I'm sorry she doesn't like my book, but I'm not surprised.84SCOBIEI think it does raise a major and quite legitimate question: what right doauthors have to use historical figures in this way? We are in a sense appropriatingthem for our own purposes, even for our own gain. It's a rather queasy moralpoint. All I can plead is that if we make something imaginatively genuine outof it, then that carries its own justification. But I can understand people whoobject, on principle, to the whole idea. The same problem comes up with Bower-ing's Vancouver, say, or Findley's Duchess of Windsor, or Heather Robertson'sMackenzie King . . . the list is endless. Ondaatje too; he lies all the time.F : I wanted to ask you about the connection between your work and Ondaatje's.s : It was very deliberate. There's always been a lot of contact and interactionbetween what I teach and what I write. I never see any contradiction betweenthe two activities: they're just two manifestations of the same thing, a love ofliterature, a concern for poetry. Often I treat the same subject in both modes atonce. At the time I was writing McAlmon's Chinese Opera I was also writing anessay on McAlmon's fiction and I've since written a major essay on Glassco. Atthe time I wrote my essay on Ondaatje's Billy the Kid I was also writing the shortstory, "Deputy Bell," about Billy the Kid, which appears in the first Aurora. Oneof the aspects of recent Canadian poetry that I've been very much interested inis the long documentary poem, for which the major prototypes in the modernperiod are Margaret Atwood's The Journals of Susanna Moodie and Ondaatje'sThe Collected Works of Billy the Kid.F : And there's the Livesay essay, of course.2s : And then there's Gwen MacEwen's T. E. Lawrence poems : an absolutely fan-tastic book. So, the documentary poem was very clearly present as a model. Butit's not particularly Billy the Kid; that's just one of the major examples. If any-thing, I suppose, McAlmon is slightly closer in form to The Journals of SusannaMoodie, in that it's in the protagonist's voice, it's divided into three chronologicalsections, and is a kind of retrospective. There are a couple of hints left inMcAlmon's Chinese Opera that it was originally all intended to be spoken by himin the last year of his life to an interviewer. There are still a couple of hints inthere where he says things like "You can sit where you like: / the chairs are allthe same," and "You'll find / another bottle on the bookshelf there / proppingup / some priceless first editions of / nobody's autobiography," which is a doubleallusion to William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein. Originally that was muchstronger, but eventually I thought "That's kind of a hokey idea to pursue literally,"so as a major idea in the book it got dropped.F : I wondered, because I thought in the relationship between Billy and Pat Gar-rett, and then William Carlos Williams and McAlmon, there's a kind of parallel— two people acting against each other.85SCOBIEs : Well, that was inevitable, because in fact William Carlos Williams did makethe comparison between McAlmon and Billy the Kid. He doesn't carry over intocalling himself Pat Garrett, obviously. And I looked at that and I thought "Thisis too good to be true, I can't resist using that." And yet it must seem so totallygratuitous.F : Well, it struck me as an allusion to Ondaatje, I didn't realize that it was real.You practically need a footnote there.s : I know that a lot of Canadian readers will simply take it as that, which is fineby me. It works perfectly well that way. And I guess I put a lot of stress on therelationship to Williams all the way through, right from the very first poem.F: Well, it's one of the themes; you want to find out what happened betweenthem, because McAlmon's so vicious at the beginning of the book as an old man,yet they had been great friends.s : It's one of the great mysteries of McAlmon's life : I've read and re-read thepage in Williams's autobiography which McAlmon took such violent exceptionto, and it's hard to see what exactly hurt him so much. I suspect that more thananything else it was simply the entirely casual tone that Williams uses to describeMcAlmon's marriage to Bryher. Williams sounds as if he's saying this is a funnylittle joke that H.D. managed to play.F : And the marriage was McAlmon's major emotional focus.s : It was the ruin of his whole life.F: DO you really think so?s : I don't know. I feel that it must have been, because there is very little in thebiography to suggest that his emotional life was, up until then, anything otherthan normal and healthy, although he certainly had a fairly disordered childhood.But there is a kind of emotional deadness in the later McAlmon which does seemto set in around the time of his marriage. He was clearly bisexual, and I thinkalso that Bryher was lesbian, and as far as I can tell, the marriage was neverconsummated. But the marriage is such a mystery. Bryher, in a 250-page auto-biography, devotes one half paragraph to it, and McAlmon ostentatiously beginshis autobiography on the day after the wedding, so both of them blatantly refuseto talk about it. I've written a story about it from Bryher's point of view called"A Marriage of Convenience."3F : Which it was, except for McAlmon, and I suppose it did him more harm thangood in the long run.s : Yes, it did.86SCOBIEF: I instantly thought of Ondaatje's poem "White Dwarfs" when I read Mc-Almon's Chinese Opera, and I thought "Aha, here's one of those so-called failedartists who yet is a success because he's withdrawn into a transcendent silence,"and you took violent issue with that. I wonder if you could give your reasons,because I think other people would make that connection too.s : Well, I don't know whether I would take violent issue with it.F : Mild issue.s : The point where I would not accept the connection is that it does not seem tome that McAlmon would ever have committed or even considered suicide. TheWhite Dwarfs, beautiful losers, that whole Ondaatje-Cohen-Phyllis Webb con-nection .. .F : All your favourite writers . . .s : My favourite writers, yeah. . .. They are talking about very self-destructivepersonalities for whom suicide is always a possibility, and for many of them anactuality. That's what I don't see in McAlmon at all. He was self-destructive inmany ways. He certainly had a gift for saying the wrong thing at the wrong timeand he certainly had this marvellous aptitude for offending potentially usefulpeople.F: Publishers.s : Publishers, mainly. I mean the famous story of how he went to New York andhad lunch with Maxwell Perkins at Scribners, and Perkins was seriously consider-ing publishing him. McAlmon, attempting to ingratiate himself with Perkins,spent the entire lunch telling him that Hemingway was a drunken homosexualwho beat his pregnant wife, which may or may not have been true, but whichcertainly did not endear him to Maxwell Perkins.F : Who was Hemingway's publisher, right?s : Yes. Hemingway was the blue-eyed boy at the time.F: But I thought suicide was not the only way out; people just stopped writingfor one reason or another.s : Well, McAlmon never really stopped writing, either. He kept on writing, andeven as late as about a couple of years before his death he left California andcame to New York for six months and tried to get some kind of recognition. Sothat really flamboyant self-destructiveness, that idea of going out in a blaze ofglory — "after such choreography what would they wish to speak of anyway" —that isn't there in McAlmon.F : He never had the glory, for one thing.87SCOBIEs : He never managed the parade. I have a tremendous interest in the figure ofthe failed artist.F: Why did he fail?s : It's very difficult for me at this stage truly to distinguish between talking aboutthe historical Robert McAlmon and the McAlmon who emerges in the poems.One of the key things is certainly this kind of emotional deadness that sets in,which leads him to a kind of sterility. And yet, even in my poems, he never givesin. He never finally admits his failure, and he persists in saying that all he reallywants is a fair judgment. Right to the end he's repeating:Montparnasse in the first light of dawnhas a kind of hard-edged honestyit makes all judgements liesThat whole thing. In my poems, he still believes right to the end that he was agreater writer than Hemingway.F : Do you think he was?s: Yes. Oh, yes. I do have to be careful here: I mean, there's always the possibleconfusion between the McAlmon who "really" existed and the McAlmon whom/ created. The McAlmon in my book expresses certain literary views which, byand large, I share, and which, I think to a lesser extent, the historical McAlmonshared. I'm sure we all share the belief that he was a greater writer than Heming-way ! But my McAlmon is kinder to Gertrude Stein than the real one was, so insome places the Scobie biases creep in. And I certainly played up the anti-Hemingway aspect because it was such fun for me to do !The historical McAlmon had in his writing this whole ideal of contact whichhe and William Carlos Williams jointly formulated around 1920, which was areaction against what they saw as the excessive literariness of Eliot, who was, atthat stage, the major target. And I think Hemingway became the major targetlater. What they wanted was a very flat, realistic literature of direct contact withAmerican life, which called for a kind of absolute honesty, but also for an almosttotal lack of artifice in the presentation. Now what this produces in McAlmon'swriting, in the historical McAlmon's writing, is some astonishingly good shortstories, especially the stories of Distinguished Air, because he had an honesty andan ability to accept absolutely anything nonjudgmentally which I think goes way,way beyond anything Hemingway ever achieved. The crucial thing, I guess, is thewhole issue of homosexuality. Hemingway just curled up in embarrassment andtook refuge in all these terribly phony macho ideals of the real man, et cetera,et cetera, whereas McAlmon just sailed right into the Berlin nightclubs of themid-nineteen-twenties and produced in Distinguished Air a series of astonishingstories about homosexuals, transvestites, cocaine addicts, whatever. And he just88SCOBIEaccepts them all, nonjudgmentally; he's not fazed or embarrassed, even whenhe's writing long monologues in the persona of a man called Mary, he doesn'thave to prove anything about his own sexuality, his own ego. That's the "contact"ideal at its best : it enabled him to look clearly at people who were, in one sense,the dregs of humanity, and to see them simply as human; to present them thatway, without posturing, without moralizing, without evading.But equally, of course, the aesthetic that he was working with, also impliedhuge stretches of very dull writing, precisely because he rejected any ideas ofliterary artifice and didn't like to revise or anything like that. So the result is thatwhen he's on, he's good, but when he's off, he's terrible. OK, so I'm very interestedin that kind of writing, especially in the very long poem, and it seems to me thatMcAlmon was anticipating the things which were achieved with much greatersuccess by William Carlos Williams, by Pound in the Cantos, by Olson in theMaximum poems, and, to some extent, by bpNichol in the Martyrology. There'ssomething in McAlmon's aesthetic which leads into that whole strand of modernwriting, which he himself never managed to accomplish. As he went on, hebecame more and more embittered, and the good patches in his writing becamefewer and fewer. That bitterness sets in which I think destroys him, both as aman and as a writer. So in that sense, to get back to the poem, the poem doesemphasize this and comes back several times to the idea of contact, to the ideaof abundance (which is the word Stein applied to him), the reaction against thefake posing of Hemingway and of Eliot. So McAlmon's a failure. But he's apeculiar kind of failure, because at least part of the purpose of the whole bookis to assert he wasn't really a failure, that right in there was a perception, therewas a vision, fitfully realized, which was real and which got lost somewhere.F : And that's the failure, the losing . ..s : And the failure is that he got lost.F : Given all these relationships — Robert McAlmon and William Carlos Wil-liams, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, what about you and Douglas Barbour?s : It's certainly not a Pat Garrett-Billy the Kid relationship.F : No, no, no. I shouldn't imply that. Which one of you is going to get shot !s : I think we work together so well because we are so different. We like the samekinds of thing, but we both have a very wide eclecticism in what we like. Cer-tainly over the years we've influenced each other. He's introduced things to me;I've introduced things to him. It's never been a relationship of conflict; it's alwaysbeen complementary. I think the peculiar thing was that for twelve years there,all the way through the seventies, there were the two of us in Edmonton, and wewere really the odd men out in prairie poetry. If you look at the images of prairie89SCOBIEpoetry in the seventies, there was Suknaski, and there were people like GlenSorestad ; a whole thing grew up of prairie poetry as anecdotal and realist and .. .F : Horizontal.s : Horizontal and conversational and all the rest of it and then off in this oddcorner in Edmonton were Scobie and Barbour who clearly didn't have anythingto do with that, whose connections seemed to be either to Talonbooks in Vancou-ver or Coach House in Toronto, who kept on talking about people like PhyllisWebb and bpNichol. Somehow, when people talked about prairie poetry theynever included us.F: YOU didn't fit the pattern.s : There were nice generalizations to be made, and we didn't fit in.F : Whereas other people, like Elizabeth Brewster, who isn't from the prairies atall, fit in so well.s : There are ironic twists here. One is that I've just edited and introduced Suk-naski's Selected Poems — an odd choice. And there is the whole question ofKroetsch. During most of the early seventies, Kroetsch was in Binghamton, andI don't think that people thought of him as a prairie poet. But when they try towrite an account of prairie poetry that does include Robert Kroetsch, they'regoing to have to bring in Doug and me as well.F : Because of the postmodernist slant.s : And because there are connections between us, especially between Doug andKroetsch. Doug is probably closer to Kroetsch than I am, in poetic practice, ifnot in theory.F: I wanted to talk about your story "Streak Mosaic" and the whole idea ofregionalism. In that story, which I found a very good one to teach students in awestern Canadian literature course, you're taking the whole "prairie" thing andmaking fun of it. Yet I think it's also a very good story, and a story that does leadinto the tradition.s : A lot of my short stories, of which there are not many, play with a conventionalform, or a conventional set of ideas, and push them just a little too far, so theycan't be taken completely seriously, yet they're not so totally burlesqued that theyfall over into mere parody. I like hitting that line where they still work if you takethem at face value, and yet it's done also with that edge which says "I know this iscliché, I know this is a ritualistic thing." "Streak Mosaic" is every cliché that youcan possibly think of, about the prairies, and yet it's true. I've written a spy storyset in Victoria, which involves some weird plot machinations. The plot keeps9°SCOBIEgetting more and more horrendously complicated, and the events succeed eachother faster and faster so that by about the last six pages of the story, plot twistsare following each other about once every two paragraphs. So the reader cannottake it completely seriously as a spy story; it becomes a kind of parody of thegenre. And yet it has to work. If you stop and figure out all the twists in the plotthey are all logically worked out, and the plot does hold together, and there is aplausible explanation for everything that happens, but in a twenty-page shortstory there are more events than there are in a two-hundred-page novel.F : You should add water and put it on the New York Times best-seller list.s: Well, that's the point. As a prose fiction writer, I'm very lazy. I can't bebothered. I think I got corrupted years ago by Borges, who said he was too lazyto write novels.F: Talking about prairies and regionalism and so on, does being from Scotlandput you at a distadvantage? Do you think people overlook you?s : I don't know why people don't pay as much attention to me as they should ![Laughter.] I'm regionalist, in the sense that I always have a very, very strongresponse to landscape, and the sense of place is always very important to me. Onthe other hand, I've got, oh, at least four or five different places. There is Scotland,and I can still respond very emotionally and directly to the Scottish landscape;there are the years and years on the prairies, so I have some kind of feeling for aprairie landscape; and I love the west coast. And there's the European thing,centring on Paris, so that you can't call me a regionalist from any one region.F : Which is the way it should be, I think. It's true that people write about theplace they are in, but they don't have to be in one place forever. I think that's theunfair part of it; people insist: "You're from Scotland, so you can't ever be aCanadian writer." That's silly.s : I guess there's a suspicion that you're skimming the surface. That you haven'tearned the right to write about Big Bear.F: Yeah. Well, phooey to that. I thought "Why McAlmon," and then I thought"Why Cohen?" because you and Cohen don't seem to be that closely connected.If I thought "Who would Stephen Scobie pick to write a major book about," theanswer certainly wouldn't have been Leonard Cohen.s: In the first place, I arrived in Canada in 1965 at the height of Cohen'spopularity.F: Cohenmania.s : He visited Vancouver in April 1966. He was probably the first major Canadian91SCOBIEauthor that I met. I read Beautiful Losers when it first came out and was com-pletely bowled over by it.F: Like everybody else.s: So for that period, 1965-66, Cohen was the major avant-garde author inCanada. And secondly, there's the whole business of the songs. One of my con-tinuing and abiding interests is in the poetic use of the medium of pop songs,which began for me with Bob Dylan, and which fascinated me in LeonardCohen. In 1966 when he came to give a reading at U.B.C., Beautiful Losers wasjust out and none of the records had appeared. Nobody knew he was a singer.He arrived to give this reading and there were about 250 people there, all clutch-ing copies of Spice Box of Earth and waiting to hear this marvellous romanticpoetry. He strides into this huge auditorium at U.B.C. carrying a guitar, andinstant freak-out all over the audience, "What is this?" I had no notion at thattime that Cohen had that kind of interest, not knowing then about the BuckskinBoys and all his early exploits. So he gets up there and reads a couple of dutifulpoems from Spice Box of Earth just to get us all happy, and suddenly plunkplunk plink on the guitar and he starts "Suzanne" which at that stage nobodyhas ever heard.F : What was the reaction?s : I don't know what the general audience reaction was, but I was knocked outby it. I thought it was just fantastic.F: YOU have the art of being at the right place at the right time.s : And he sang also, "Wasn't it a long way down, wasn't it a strange way down" ;lines that echoed in my head for days and days afterwards. I was sold on Cohenas a singer from very early on. Next, Judy Collins's album that had "Suzanne"on it came out and we all rushed out and bought that. It was the album thatspring. So that's why Cohen in the first place. Then, I guess, the more I becameinterested in Cohen critically, the more I also realized that he was completelydifferent from me.F : Another thing that comes up is your fascination with the arbitrary, the ran-dom, the cryptic, things that happen accidentally, anagrams, word play. I won-dered where you got that interest.s : Part of it is just a games-playing attitude. My parents were both great cross-word puzzle addicts, and I am too.F : Do they play Scrabble?s : Yeah, they play Scrabble.92SCOBIEF : Corrupted at an early age.s : I am fascinated by chance happening, not just at the level of language, butodd things happening.F : Do you call them synchronicities, rather than coincidences?s: Well, I'm very hesitant to ascribe any inherent purpose or meaning to themin themselves. I think that the purpose and meaning are what the writer brings tothem, in the very act of choosing them. A lot of people talk about chance as anideally impersonal medium, as a way of escaping from the demands of the ego;you can get quite mystical along these lines. A lot of the theorizing about abstractart, you know, is very musical — Kandinsky, say, or Malevich — and it's notsomething I've ever been very happy with. If I had to put a philosophical nameto it, I suppose I would use "existentialist" : that is, the significance is not inherentin the material, the artist brings the significance to it, largely in the choice —which is in some way the existentialist "authentic" choice — of saying OK, thisis a poem.F: IS that what lies behind The Pirates of Pen's Chancels : Well, I don't think that Doug and I ever talked it through in quite these terms.In fact, a lot of our attitude was much more pragmatic : the technique is here touse, let's see what happens. And the composition of that book was, in a friendlyway, quite competitive : I'd try out a method and get a poem, then I'd run downthe corridor to Doug's office and say "Ha! Look at this!" and then he'd have togo me one better, and so on. I guess we both believe that this kind of poetry isthere to be found, but you still need a poet to do the finding. And this happensnot just at the level of language, of found poems, homolinguistic translations orwhatever, but also at the level of events. A lot of my more anecdotal poems, whenI do get anecdotal, are based on curious things that happen, things that peopletell me, events that I stumble across.F : Another area of fascination of yours that I find interesting is all these ...borderlines . . . between various genres — sound poetry, concrete poetry — andalso nonacademic interests that you bring into academia like song lyrics andfilms and horror movies and so on. Is this just eclectic taste, or do you have somekind of poetic theory that inclines you towards these areas of art that are notconsidered central.s: It's partly eclectic taste, it's mainly a fascination with what bpNichol callsborderblur. In my introduction to my book on Leonard Cohen I say somethinglike "There are people who define a circle by its centre, and there are people whodefine it by its circumference; people who define a thing by looking at the middleof the road, mainstream examples of it and people who define things by going to93SCOBIEthe limits, and if necessary, going over the limits in order to find out where thelimits really are." In that sense, I suppose I'm like Cohen in that I really likelooking at things at their outer edges. I'm fascinated by the areas where differentart forms interact with each other, cross over to each other, where poetry becomespainting or music, or whatever, much more so than by a really mainstream,middle-of-the-road thing — the tradition. I've always had this interest in moviesand in pop songs, and I just keep adding. One of my closest friends in Edmontongot me hooked on opera, another obvious borderblur area. Then, partly becauseof my interest in Paris, I became hooked on Cubist painting. Borderblur again.So I keep on adding interests. So far I haven't taken a great interest in ballet, butI'm sure it's coming. I think it's the same thing even in my interest in Canadianliterature.F: It is. And you teach a course where you spend more time on bpNichol thanon Margaret Atwood; now that it not a typical course.s : But also, even there, even Canadian literature is an area that is, as yet,undefined. I'd much rather deal with contemporary literature than with thegreat tradition. I enjoy reading Shakespeare, I enjoy teaching Shakespeare toundergraduates, where it is new for them and where obviously I'm not trying tosay anything vastly original about Hamlet; I'm just trying to get them to under-stand what's going on.F : If you teach so as to get students to understand, what are you doing readingDer rida?s : I've become interested in Derrida specifically and in critical theory generallyfairly gradually over the past four or five years. I guess I'd first heard of Derridayears ago, from Steve McCaffery long before Derrida was the household wordhe is these days in American academe. Steve was doing this marvellous poemcalled "Of Grammatology," where he scattered alphabet cereal all over the floor,and rolled around, simultaneously eating and pronouncing them. He would climbup to the top of a stepladder and pour them on the floor and then get down andwallow around in them, munching them up and reading each one as he pickedit up with his teeth off the floor.F : Did you tell Derrida about this when you met him?s : There was a project to have Steve and the Four Horsemen perform in front ofDerrida this June in Toronto, but it never came to anything. It's a great regretto me ; I would have loved to see Derrida's reaction. But it was in connection withthat piece that I first heard the name Derrida, in 1973-74.F: That early?94SCOBIEs : Yes.F : That's a weird way to hear of Derrida, I must say.s: McCaffery has this voracious appetite for strange theories of all kinds, andwas heavily into Derrida very early. So, I'd been aware of Derrida for awhile. ButI read a lot more Barthes. I read The Pleasure of the Text when it first appearedin English translation without at that stage understanding half of what was goingon in it. I'm not sure I understand half of it now.F: Does anybody? [Laughter.]s : I've read Barthes for years ; I read Elements of Semiology and Writing DegreeZero back in the sixties, in fact quite shortly after Elements of Semiology firstappeared. But it was only a few years ago, when I read Christopher Norris's book,that I began to understand what Derrida was talking about. This is just accident.I don't think Norris's book is necessarily the best introduction to Derrida. Now Iwould say that Culler's On Deconstruction is the best general introduction. Thenin Toronto in June 1984 I spent a month at the ISISS4 symposium and actuallyheard Derrida, and certainly he's a very impressive man. He has a presence. Hehas all the things his theory says he shouldn't have.F: Authority.s : Authority, presence, charisma, the self-present word and all that kind of stuff.F : He should stumble and mutter and throw Alphabits about, really.s : Yes. His theory, at least implicitly, denies, puts into question, tends to qualifyquite severely his own presence.F: He should take Steve McCaffery with him wherever he goes as a kind ofalter ego.s : So over the last two or three years I've become increasingly interested in criti-cal theory. And I'm aware that this is some kind of bandwagon, some kind offad. But I think that there are genuine reasons for this, that is I think that theoryis genuinely exciting and interesting, that the fact that everybody in NorthAmerica is doing it now obviously does have undesirable consequences, that itdocs come to seem merely fashionable. But look at it positively, it does show thatthe theory is meeting a genuine need and is giving to many people a new anddifferent way of looking at literature and revitalizing a study of literature thathad, I think, become very tired and stale. Many of us were floundering arounddoing the usual theme studies, biographical studies, studies of image patterns andall the rest of it.F : And it was getting boring. You could do that.95SCOBIEs : Do I really want to spend the rest of my life writing about image patterns?F : Did it change your teaching, or will it, do you think?s: It's difficult to know exactly how it will change my teaching. I did try in agraduate course I gave last year to use at least some poststructuralist or decon-structive ideas, but I was dealing with bpNichol's The Martyrology, which invitesit, and mentions it, and necessitates it. I was dealing with graduate students, buteven there I couldn't assume they knew anything about it, and indeed, some ofthem didn't know anything. I think what will be really interesting will be whenyou get to the stage when there are regular courses on literary theory and youcan go into a course on Canadian literature and feel that you can say Derridaand they're not all going to look around and say "Who?"F : It'll be awhile yet.s : Not necessarily all that long. Just talking about the University of Victoria, wehave several people on staff now who can and will be teaching these courses.So that will change. How it will filter down to freshman teaching, is difficult topredict, because obviously you can't go into a freshman composition class andoffer them a course on deconstruction. On the other hand, it seems to me thata lot of the stuff I've been reading in say, reader-response, narratology, receptiontheory focused on the act of reading is very useful, and does provide a systematizedbasis for teaching. The last time I taught freshman English I presented studentswith a highly simplified scheme of authors, narrators, readers, in about threestages. Next time I'll probably offer them a diagram in about seven or eightstages, which is much more sophisticated, but which I think I could teach at thefreshman level.I think that theory operates at two levels; first, there is the theory in and foritself. You get carried away with the beauty of the theoretical construct. And toa certain extent if you read a lot of Derrida you don't get to talk about the text.The theory just exists for its own sake. But that seems fine. And second, it doeswork, where you turn and apply it to texts. It works in different ways. If you'redealing with highly traditional, hierarchical texts, then you are basically lookingfor ways in which these texts work against themselves, fall apart under a certainkind of scrutiny, and there's a danger there which the critics of deconstruction veryoften bring up, which is that you end up saying exactly the same thing about textafter text.F : Oh, look, this is another logocentric text.s : Let us take apart the logocentrism of this text. Here is another based on thehierarchy of speech and writing, let us take this apart. Certainly there is thatdanger.96SCOBIEF : Or in discovering that your favourite authors are all secretly deconstructionists.Every essay says, ah he, unbeknownst to anybody . . .s: Or, you can turn the theory of contemporary experimental texts, which tosome extent do deconstruct themselves already or do work with these ideas. Whenyou're working with McCaffery or Nichol or with other people like Fred Wah,these are the people who read the theory themselves and are already beginningconsciously to use that kind of idea. The Martyrology, book 5, is scattered withreferences to sliding signifiers, and obviously, bp knows all about Lacan.F : Has it affected your writing? Has it affected your poetry?s : Some of the recent poetry, the sequence called "Rambling Sign," which is inthe book Expecting Rain, certainly uses signs in its vocabulary and as a large partof its subject matter. I've written about that kind of thing. I'm not sure that I canyet break the patterns of my own writing radically enough to be able to say thatwhat I'm writing is deconstractive poetry. Some of the sound poetry and someof the poetry in Pirates of Pen's Chance does seem deconstructive.F: Even destructive.s : Yes, I think Pirates of Pen's Chance is a book that could be described preciselyin terms of dissemination. In terms of my own critical writing, that's anotherproblem. The major example so far is an essay entitled "Surviving theParaph-raise."5 There's a very strong theoretical, ah, bent, to that essay. There'sa long section in the middle of it which is practically wall-to-wall quotations fromDerrida. But I was fascinated by that essay because I found that what I could do,by starting from some highly theoretical ideas in Derrida, circling around thenotion of the signature, was to say things about the poetry which I could nototherwise . . . there was no way I could have got to that kind of commentary Ioffer on Wah, Webb, and Nichol, if I hadn't used theoretical ideas, or beenstarting from theoretical ideas. The essay is, for me, the first major instance in myown critical writing in which I have been able to take this interest in post-structuralist theory and really use it to say something about poetic texts. At thesame time, I wrote it originally to deliver as a lecture at Edmonton. Part of mymischievous intent was that I would go back to Edmonton and prove to every-body there that I had finally gone completely crazy.F : That they had gotten rid of you just in time.s : And therefore I allowed myself in that essay a certain amount of self-indulgencewhich I haven't previously allowed myself in academic essays. There's a pun onevery page. The entire essay is based on, and grew out of, a pun: the paraphrase/paraph-raise. That pun was the starting point of the whole essay. So the style97SCOBIEthroughout the essay is very playful, it invites puns, rather than trying to avoidthem, and at various stages in that essay, the argument is carried by puns.F : Which in fact is what you enjoy doing in your poetry, there's a lot of that kindof language play there too.s : And some of my recent poems have used that kind of highly convoluted wordplay as the basic generative devices for the poem.F : So there is a connection between your critical and your poetical writing, then.Does this theory allow you to integrate your interest in various kinds of media —songs and films — in a way that your earlier academic criticism couldn't?s : The theoretical certainly embraces them all. There have been several gesturestowards a deconstructive theory of film. In the sense of conventional narrativecinema as perfected by Hollywood in the forties and even fifties, film is aneminently deconstructable medium. It sits up there and begs for this kind ofanalysis, and especially a feminist analysis, such as that carried out in Teresade Lauretis's book Alice Doesn't. The attack on the structure of narrative film isa semiotic attack and a feminist attack. The subtitle of de Lauretis's book,Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema, is very interesting because it speaks to that kind oftotal interconnection. Obviously deconstruction works straight into a kind offeminist criticism with, at this point, a major footnote, caveat, warning, modifica-tion, call it what you want, that Derrida himself, although he provides, I think,the tools for a lot of feminist discourse, is obviously a very ambiguous figure forfeminist criticism insofar as he is an extremely powerful male, subject to extremeadulation from people like me. [Laughter.]F : Have you touched the hem of his garment?s : I have shaken the master's hand, I have my signed copy of Of Grammatology.It's very hard, I think, for feminist criticism to use the insights that Derrida pro-vides and yet at the same time to steer clear of Derrida himself as this kind oftotem figure. And a great many of the bigger guns of deconstruction, which is anunfortunate metaphor right there, are in fact male. You start in on this stuff andyou've got Derrida, Barthes, Lacan, Eco.F : Kristeva's really the big name who's a woman.s : But Kristeva's not entirely sympathetic to feminist criticism. You have to gooff into people like Luce Irigaray and Hélène Cixous. It's really noticeable thatin the whole flood of translation of French critical writing that we have, verylittle feminist writing is available. Everything by Derrida is available. A great dealof Lacan, absolutely everything by Barthes, absolutely everything by Eco. Thesepeople are all available in English translation, even Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-98SCOBIEOedipus is around in translation. But Cixous and Irigaray were until very recentlypractically unavailable, a few essays here and there.F : You have to be able to read French.s : You have to be able to read deconstructive feminist French ! It is a cause fortremendous concern that the pattern of translation of avant-garde French theoryis at the moment very heavily male-oriented. There is a desperate need forfeminist critics to be translated. Their influence in Canada is almost entirelythrough Quebec.F : Through people like Nicole Brossard, Barbara Godard . . .s : And Louky Bersianik, Louise Cotnoir, people like that, who are obviouslyreading and quoting from Irigaray, in French, but not any other way. It seemsto me that there are very strong connections between deconstruction as a philo-sophical project, semiotics as a study of the social function of signs, and feminism,and that these concerns have focused upon narrative rather than poetry, and evenwithin narrative, they have tended to focus on film largely, I think, because of thework by de Lauretis and Stephen Heath. And so much of it came out originallyin Screen magazine in England, people like Laura Mulvey. In books like StephenHeath's Questions of Cinema, and Kaja Silverman's book on semiotics andTeresa de Lauretis's Alice Doesn't. I'm fascinated by everything that Heath saysabout visual space and the construction of visual space, because that feeds intopainting. And it feeds into everything that I want to say about Cubism. WhatI'm trying to do at the moment is to get back to a long-standing interest in Cubismand literature which has been on the back burner for about the last ten years,and trying desperately to shove it onto the front burner. Derrida is on the frontburner —F : And he won't get off !s : But once I do get him off, I can say quite simply that what I have to do is todeconstruct Cubism.F : You can say it quite simply, but to do it is another matter.s: Yes. But the way I'm going to do it is by taking a lot of what the cinemapeople have to say about the construction of visual space, and the ideologicalimplications of the construction of visual space and to apply that to painting. Itbecomes a narrative medium. Cinema came along, and one would have imagined... let me step back a bit. The whole Renaissance tradition in painting and thevisual arts generally was to build up this very unified and coherent visual spacewhich was organized by linear and aerial perspective, and a static point of view,and produce this whole sense of a coherent spacial world. Now when the cinema99SCOBIEcame along, what one would imagine the cinema would do would be entirely tobreak up that space, because the cinema implies a moving point of view, amultiple point of view, and a film can be edited, et cetera. But in fact whathappened is that as narrative cinema evolved in Hollywood in the thirties andforties, what they did was to construct again a coherent visual space, which washierarchical, and secure in all the old ways. I'm drawing very heavily on StephenHeath here, although I think I'm inflecting it differently. But I think whathappened, against all odds and expectations, is that cinema took over the role ofclassical painting. And the deconstruction of the visual space that went on inCubism, happened in painting, at around the same time that the thing that itwas replacing was beginning to establish itself in cinema.F : So you just got the theory in time.s : The whole thing would have been very different five years ago. It would havefitted into a very much more stable kind of discourse than I can now give it. It'sobviously going to be a much weirder book that I ever thought it would be.F : Well, that's all right.s : What it then comes down to is a question of belief.F : Do you buy the implication of deconstructive theories?s : Yes : that, as Hamlet said, is the question. Is it simply a set of ideas that youcan use or is it something that you ultimately believe in. If Derrida's position istaken to its logical conclusion, it's not simply a way of saying funny things aboutliterature. It's a rethinking of the whole philosophical tradition that deals withthe nature of the way we see the world.F : To see the world the way Derrida does, you have to change everything.s : You have to change, or at least you have, to use his phrase, to be able to placethings under erasure. That is, they're simultaneously there and not there. Everyoneaccepts that you do not live every moment of your life at the plane of ultimatephilosophy. In daily intercourse, in buying groceries, you obviously make certainpragmatic assumptions about the way language works and the degree of stabilityin the meaning of words. If I go into a butcher's shop and order beef . . .F : You expect to get beef.s : Right. At the day-to-day level we work on the basis of pragmatic assumptions,and Derrida does that the same as everybody else. So obviously there's a sense inwhich questions of ultimate belief operate in daily life in suspension.F : But isn't it more than just a linguistic theory? This is the problem. It is attack-ing some of the sources of religious belief, as well as describing the way languageiooSCOBIEworks. It's not just privileging text over voice, it's also attacking God as theultimate source of authority.s : That depends on how you define religion. Insofar as religion is connected witha system of hierarchical authority, in which you have a god who is the ultimateauthority, the ultimate origin, and the ultimate father, then obviously everythingthat Derrida says goes to take apart that whole system of beliefs. In deconstructionyou cannot attribute any meaning to a god who is the authority, the origin, thefather. He takes apart most of conventional Christianity, Judaism . . .F : And a few other religions !s: But if you define religion as a much more general belief in a religious orspiritual dimension to human experience without attaching it to this kind ofhierarchical authority, then I'm not so sure. Derrida himself is very interested inChristian mysticism, in what is called "negative theology."F : Religion comes up in only two, maybe three, of your poems and yet it comes upin fairly dramatic ways. How did you deal with religion when you were growingup? Were you religious?s : I was intensely religious until the age of about twenty, or twenty-one. Prob-ably to begin with simply without thinking about it at all, because my father wasa minister of religion and every male relative in the past three generations onboth sides of the family was. And when I was very young I think that I justassumed that I would do the same without even consciously deciding on it.F : Do you think you write because your father wrote the Sunday sermon?s : It has connections, yeah. In the first place I was brought up in an intenselyliterate household where people read and where people wrote and where therewas even a certain kind of rhetorical tradition which probably carries over toa lot of my writing. I have written several poems about my father who is a manI intensely admired as well as loved; quite apart from anything else I just straightout admired him.F : Did you lose your faith?s : To say I lost my faith makes it sound much more dramatic and melodramaticthan it is. But partly because I understand so much about what a religious lifecan be, because I lived so close to such intense examples of it, I'm probably muchmore demanding with myself about what true faith would involve.F : So you can't compromise.s : I can't drift along. So I would have to say that for the last ten or fifteen yearsof my life, I've been essentially nonreligious, agnostic, certainly not atheist, cer-IOISCOBIEtainly not anti-Christian, because it still seems to me that as an intellectual schemeChristianity has not only a coherence, but a certain kind of moral grandeur.Again, thinking mainly of my father, I've seen at first hand the workings of thatfaith in the life of the best man I've ever known. So I can never reject it or discardit, never be blatantly anti-Christian in any kind of propagandistic sense, and yetin my own life, for the moment at least, I can't embrace it. I make no conclusions.NOTES1 "The Mirror on the Brothel Wall: John Glassco, Memoirs of Montparnasse,"Canadian Poetry no. 13 (Fall/Winter 1983), 43-58.2 Dorothy Livesay, "The Documentary Poem: A Canadian Genre," in Contexts ofCanadian Criticism, ed. Eli Mandel (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1971 ),pp. 267-81.3 "A Marriage of Convenience" in The New Press Anthology *1: Best CanadianShort Fiction, ed. John Metcalf and Leon Rooke (Toronto: General, 1984), pp.201-16.4 International Summer Institute for Structuralist and Semiotic Studies.5 Forthcoming in Open Letter.FLYOV6RS/STOPOVERSRobert Gibbs— Ein zwei drei — the boy beside mecounts — four five six Ich wurdein Hong Kong geboren — Then his two tonguesare still His mother keeps watch lovely herHanover eyes open to the long night Thebreeze swizzles and keeps us breathingA boy and his mother are flying home to Perththirty hours downunder fromEnglish and German grandmothers Throughmy headset unendingly coming round102


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